City News

EDITOR’S COLUMN: Public interest in honest government not served by misconduct secrecy

Salem city officials are determined to keep from you the information on why a top official under investigation was able to leave office with an unearned $53,500.

Salem Reporter is working to change that, but powerful forces are lined up against us.

Faith in government and transparency in public affairs are at stake.

Here’s the issue.

Earlier this year, a deputy police chief in the Salem Police Department was under suspicion for some sort of misconduct.

As we have since learned, city leaders couldn’t advance their investigation because – and this is surprising – they couldn’t find an investigator.

Instead, they cut a deal with the executive, Steve Bellshaw. He would retire from his city job, pack up his office and walk out with an extra $53,500.

This seemed striking and seemed to warrant an explanation. Why would a top city official get paid to walk away while under investigation?

The city took nearly three weeks to release the single document, doing so only after our news organization initiated legal action to force its disclosure.

Salem city officials deflected question after question. Some questions were addressed with statements – but no explanation. On one occasion, a city official suggested that it was routine to pay off city employees leaving their jobs in these circumstances.

Salem Reporter learned about the payment after obtaining an agreement between Bellshaw and the city.

Getting even that document wasn’t easy.

The agreement required the city and Bellshaw to stay silent about terms, including the payout. No one was to say a word publicly.

When Salem Reporter asked for the agreement, the city took nearly three weeks to release the single document, doing so only after our news organization initiated legal action to force its disclosure.

And the city didn’t make it easy to get even routine information. Asked for the date Bellshaw was put on administrative leave, a city official wouldn’t answer, instead telling Salem Reporter a records request would be needed to get the date.

There is nothing sensitive about that date and the city official later conceded that was so. The deflection to a public records request had a aura of retribution to it – we’re going to make this hard for you at every single turn.

When the city declared every document about the matter was off limits, we followed Oregon law. Salem Reporter petitioned Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson, seeking an order requiring the city to release the documents. In such circumstances, Clarkson’s office acts as an informal court.

READ IT: Salem Reporter’s petition for disclosure 

District attorneys are charged with assessing the government’s claims to confidentiality. Some records are off limits by law, but there is no prohibition from releasing most. In Oregon, the public interest in seeing what government is doing generally trumps confidentiality. Our highest courts side with citizens over government in even close calls.

Salem Reporter outlined in a petition to Clarkson the reasons why the public ought to see the Bellshaw records. We cited over and over and in detail what was the public interest. This wasn’t snooping in some administrative aide’s personnel file. This was learning about potential corruption and the peculiar spending of public money.

In the resulting order, Clarkson’s office sided with the city. Amy Queen, the deputy district attorney who wrote the order that was endorsed by the district attorney, could not find one compelling reason for the public to see so much as a sentence.

READ IT: District attorney’s order 

The decision was surprising because courts in Oregon have been particularly clear that information about possible misconduct by high-ranking officials ought to be given to citizens.

In emails, Queen said she has never ordered the Salem Police Department to release public records. In fact, she said, she has never ordered any government agency to disclose records it wanted to keep away from citizens.

She explained that her “review process of many petitions have resulted in the government agency disclosing the records at issue” without being ordered to do so.

I have decades of experience in public records law. That explanation suggested to me that Queen warned public officials they would face an order to disclose if they didn’t release the documents. That gives agency officials the chance to avoid a public order that says they improperly withheld public records.

When I asked Queen to clarify, she didn’t answer. Instead, Clarkson suggested in an email there was a “misunderstanding” of Queen’s message that she wanted to ensure “does not lead to any mischaracterization, or implication thereof, related to a public agency’s disclosure of a record after a petition is filed,” she said.

She went on to write that any “request for clarification” from her office made to a government official is shared with the petitioners. But that doesn’t explicitly deny that her office gives government a heads up it is about to lose the case. On Monday, she amplified that she found my read of the review process “completely inaccurate.”

There is one other concerning aspect to all of this that suggests that government is stacked against the people.

Queen is married to a Salem Police Department officer. (Clarkson was too – until her husband left last year for another job). That means Queen is ruling on whether her husband’s employer is improperly withholding information from the public. In addition, one of the largest donors to Queen’s current campaign to become a state judge: the Salem Police Employees Union, which gave $3,000 on Aug. 18.

That seems a significant conflict – and one not disclosed by Queen, Clarkson or the resulting order that said the public wasn’t entitled to a single piece of paper about this matter.

Queen didn’t respond to questions about the matter and neither did Clarkson. They stayed silent. Clarkson didn’t respond to a telephone message and an email last week inviting her to discuss the apparent conflict.

Instead, Clarkson pointed out Salem Reporter could sue in state court if we didn’t agree with the order. Clarkson knows state courts are jammed, clearing cases backed up by the pandemic. She knows such litigation is expensive and takes years – hardly the route to transparency.

But the community has seen this before. Salem city officials for years fought one newspaper’s request to see a police report. The city likely spent a small fortune on the fight. And it lost. On top of that, courts told the city to pay $100,000 or so in legal costs run up by the newspaper that simply was trying to hold government accountable.

Salem city officials can brush off Salem Reporter, using the new shield that Clarkson’s office fashioned for them. We anticipate being denied even more records we have requested.

What they can’t do, however, is blunt public opinion and this is where you come in.

Citizen voices can call for city leaders to reverse course. You can do that by writing an email to Interim City Manager Kristin Retherford ([email protected]). Describe why you think the people of Salem deserve this information. Explain what you want to happen – and copy us.

Meantime, we won’t relent in our reporting on your behalf. In the matter of a deputy police chief who had to clear out his office on a Sunday while under supervision, we’ll keep pressing too.

Les Zaitz is editor of Salem Reporter. Contact him by email at [email protected].

Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. He co-founded the news organization in 2018. He has been a journalist in Oregon for nearly 50 years in both daily and community newspapers and digital news services. He is nationally recognized for his commitment to local journalism. He also is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.